With Comcast and Time-Warner now moving forward with video paywalls, are the cable companies doing what Hollywood and the music industry couldn’t do? Profit from the Internet… by forcing viewers to keep their cable subscriptions? That reality is coming sooner than you think.
Hulu… you said you were aliens and that’s how you rolled. You promised good times with unlimited television shows, movies, and clips, all in high quality and subsidized by ads through the goodwill of Disney/ABC, NBC and other media conglomerates with an interest in beating Google’s YouTube at its own game. You promised to transform the way people consumed entertainment, and your approach really was a grand and noble effort in the right direction… a future where cable subscriptions would become superfluous and where the consumer would determine the programming choices rather than a distant scheduling guru with dubious tastes and a mathematical algorithm or some arcane Nielsen report. Voila! Shows that would once be consigned to the syndication or the land of forgotten pilots (where Amelia Earhart probably watches them endlessly) would be well loved by the niche, the quirky and the geek in every demographic.
Ah Hulu… you were pretty awesome. But you say you’re going subscription (currently delayed), and worse, there’s
Apple TV… you still haven’t quite come close to your promise: to bring the best in high-definition viewing, à la carte, into the home… merging the computing experience with television to make it easier to find video-on-demand programming while also allowing for unique experiences like YouTube and Flickr to be seen on those new HDTVs. Still young, you’ve yet to make major licensing arrangements and are facing the same hostility from network and cable
And YouTube… well, let’s just say Happy 5th Birthday, and leave it at that. You still offer the best way to get amateur and prosumer produced content, legal or not, but have yet to harness any viable means to get legitimate content that would keep viewers glued to the site for more than the several minutes it takes Hitler to rant about being a meme on YouTube.
Only a few years ago, it seemed that content delivery was getting simplified, and the offer of free content for viewing a few ads seemed a rather perfect way to time-shift favorite cable shows such as South Park and The Daily Show as well as network favorites like Lost and CSI. It seemed, for a brief moment in time, that the old media companies were realizing that in order to stem piracy of their content and prevent a nearly complete obliteration of their profit line from occurring similar to what the music industry experienced when CD purchases cratered due to illegal and legal means of procuring music. They seemed to be realizing that they had to adjust to new realities in viewership and consumption of content. No longer were people tied to programming schedules with time-shifting devices like TiVo and other DVR’s (a movement which the cable companies quickly jumped on and dominated… taking the glow off TiVo completely). It seemed like a good bet for regular ol’ teevee programming anyway… that it would remain free when seen over a broadband network rather than a broadcast transmission via the digital airwaves or via rebroadcast thanks to a cable, satellite or fiber optic provider. After all, there were still ads to contend with… it seemed like a good quid pro quo similar to how decades of viewers traded off a few minutes of their time for free entertainment. But slowly, ever so slowly, the new reality is becoming apparent… Already cable shows once available for free, streamed via broadband Internet protocols, are becoming scarce. Hulu is no longer the sanctuary for free it once was, and paywalls are going up as fast as the cable companies can code ‘em.
One of these paywalls is known by a friendly moniker: TV Everywhere. Except it isn’t. Aside from not being available everywhere as it name indicates (no mobile abilities, no direct streaming to HDTVs). It’s simply a browser bound way of locking you out of live streamed or stored content based on a verification ID… namely your cable account’s user name and password. That’s right… without a cable subscription, you cannot view content à la carte, on-demand.
This first came to my attention when NBC, MSNBC and their other NBC channels with an online presence blocked
Consumer groups are up in arms about this, of course, but it’s almost impossible to stop the Comcast juggernaut from taking over NBC and removing content from Hulu and other currently free broadband streaming services or aggregators. Joining Comcast (who had previously considered going solo with their own OnDemand paywall system,
As more folks cut back their budgets for a variety of reasons, cable service has been one of those things to go… after all, you can only watch so much content, and much of what cable offers in its tiered blocks of programming isn’t really premium content anyway. Much of it is, in fact, regular teevee content from the networks, paid infomercials, home shopping, niche infotainment, foreign-language shows, and other endless infotainment type shows from cable-only networks such as History, Discovery and A&E. Finally, there’s some original programming that, when you come right down to it, is really the reason you get cable, other than having access to sports and 24-hour news. For even more premium content, like Hollywood movies, you must pay more for a separate tier. Cable companies are so good at getting you to pay for things you don’t use, that they even separated HD content from SD content and have you pay more for that as well (though that’s becoming a point of competition among cable companies, you gotta figure why you’d pay more for the same content in HD… sounds like just another cable company scam, and you’d be right on for feeling that way). Since viewers can really only watch one show at any given time (if you’re one of those fragmented families you might watch more at once), and since most of that content isn’t really of interest (we all have our niche tastes, but tend to gravitate toward popular general entertainment), we actually pay a huge cable bill every month for content we have no intention of consuming. To take in more content than one can view is physically impossible without help from a time-shifting device such as a DVR. For a recession weary public that has cut back on just about everything not deemed a necessity, it seems absurd to keep paying that all-encompassing cable bill, rather than just tune in for the shows you want at a lower cost or, in the best of all worlds, an à la carte service that allows the customer to program their choices for pennies on the dollar. After all, remember, much of this crap used to be free.
The cable companies shudder at the notion of ridding oneself of their services… Fat subscriber rolls keep them happy, and when there is churn without recovery (i.e. they lose a customer) they can’t sleep at night. After all, those rebroadcast fees they pay to send shows from NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX your way won’t pay themselves. The cable
TV Everywhere, which has been tested for over a year, can be seen as simply a way for cable companies to continue with the old model of doing business. Rather than the consumer dictating how content will be delivered and accessed, the cable companies are adamant about being the gate-keepers no matter how content is viewed. This will result in consumers being forced to han
If TV Everywhere will be the only way to view online content, then it must take a page from those already doing it successfully like MLB.TV, and yes… Hulu, too. If it is to be the Hulu-slayer and also crush Apple in its own quest to control content, then TV Everywhere should also offer an alternative to those who shun cable service. Having a cable subscription should not be the only way to access content that, in earlier eras, used to be free… but in the future it seems, free as a concept will be a relic of the past.
The lockdown creates a trust issue, with cable companies becoming the only path to video content in any medium. This would seem to be an oligopoly that would hinder growth of alternative forms for receiving video content. One particular issue already at play: Cable companies, along with satellite and fiber-optic/phone companies, are dividing up the online world into regions and territories similar to the way they carved out markets for themselves as old media companies. This means that unless you live in a certain region, you’re going to be blocked from that content. Therefore, if I subscribe via Charter Communications in the San Fernando Valley, I still cannot get access to content from other cable companies via their sites because they’re out of my region.
Increasingly, we’ll see more of this anti-competitive shutout as TV Everywhere, or other paywall solutions, become the norm on the once formerly neutral Internet. Consumers of broadband VOD content should be writing their congressperson right about now… just sayin’.